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The Communicators

News/Business. People who shape the digital future.

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Us 7, Ellen Miller 4, U.s. 3, Elleen Miller 2, Michael Klein 2, The Data 2, Washington 2, Metadata 2, Online 1, Data 1, Esoteric 1, Pead Pedro 1, Thomas Jefferson 1, Aps 1, Reid 1, Google 1, Etc. 1, America 1, Bloggers 1, New York 1,
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  CSPAN    The Communicators    News/Business. People who  
   shape the digital future.  

    August 17, 2009
    8:00 - 8:30am EDT  

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>> this week on "the communicators," a discussion on how the internet is being used to provide transparency in the workings of government. our guest is ellen miller of the sunlight foundation. >> host: elleen miller is the executive directer of the sunlight foundation, and she's our guest on "the communicators" to talk about politics, money and technology. pead pedro is joining in the
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questioning this week. if you could start by telling us what the sunlight foundation and what it does. >> guest: sure. well, it's a 3-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan institution that was designed to create greater transparency for the work of the u.s. government using new technology. so the internet and technologies that understand lie it are at the heart of every single thing that we do, and we're interested in transparency, particularly data and information about government and using the technology to put it into the hands of citizens where it really belongs. >> host: and how do you use that technology, and what kind of technology do you use? >> guest: well, there are several pieces to it. one, sort of the core of our work is making sure that information produced and about the u.s. congress and the executive branch and the regulatory agencies is available online in a 24/7 fashion, the
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way we expect to find any information these days. so the very first thing sunlight set out to do was digitize information that was only available in paper form. so we created a number of grants to organizations like open secrets.org or follow the money.org, places that follow campaign finance information, lobbying information, reinvolving door -- revolving door information. so that, getting that information, that data online in usable form was sort of our first goal. and then developing tools on top of it so that any citizen could understand sometimes, you know, in the blink of an eye or, you know n a somewhat more complicated fashion exactly what was in this information. so we created web sites like open congress.org where tens of thousands of people now go to get information about pieces of legislation. not interpreted information, but actually text of bills where they're allowed to comment on
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legislation and see what other people are writing about legislation. , and indeed, even write to their legislators about information. so we've created databases and tools and web sites on top of that to enable anybody, public, bloggers, citizen journalists to have access to information about what's going on in our government. >> host: and i want to come back to open government, but is this information not put online by departments in the federal government or by the congress? >> guest: well, it's a mixed bag. some information you can only find in the basement of an obscure or perhaps not so obscure government agency or office of the u.s. congress. and it's just in paper form, and unless you live in washington or you have a high-priced lobbyist, you can't get access to that. so some of that we actually give grants to have digitized. but other information is available, but you have to be the most intrepid of researchers to find it online, and sometimes it's available online in a fixed
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pdf form so you can't create a database out of it and look for the similarities, look for, you know, who might be the highest-paid lobbyist or, you know, who government, foreign government, for example, might be hiring, spending the most money on hiring lobbyists. so the idea is to bring it together and make it digestible and available online where citizens today get their information. >> host: can you give an example of how that works? a policy, something about government that people want to find out about but in a sense wouldn't be able to find out through their own research? >> guest: sure. one example has to do with foreign lobbyists, that is to say americans who lobby on behalf of foreign governments. and so we have created a database with an investigative nonprofit called propublica which allows a database which exists on paper in the basement of the justice department, we
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made a database and allowed journalists and citizens to search through country by country or legislator by legislator who was lobbied by these foreign, or by these lobbyists. you could actually look by lob byists as well. it puts a wealth of information into the hands of citizens. i mean, another example, more sort of simple example is we took the congressional record which is actually available online, the congressional record every single day has as many words in it as the tale of two cities, so who is going to read that? we created a site called capitol words in which you can actually research -- or research is done for you -- you click on what was the most popular word of the day yesterday, and you can actually tell what congress was talking about yesterday. you can also search that by your legislator, your delegation, so it's a very interesting insight for citizens to understand actually what was congress
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talking about yesterday. >> host: well, just to follow up on that quickly, what is metadata tagging semantic and technology? [laughter] >> guest: that's a sophisticated way of looking. metadata is about data. that may sound esoteric. the issue for data, i think, is how do you know what you're looking for, how can you find what you're looking for? if i want all data about campaign finance, that is metadata. but if i want data about the campaign finance contributions to this member of congress, you can dig deep into a single database. so sunlight is trying to create collections of data, mashing data together so that you can have a bigger picture of the data and what its impact might be. >> host: what processes does your organization then go through to make sure this information is presented just as
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it is and not interpreted like you talked about at the beginning? >> guest: right. well, data is data, so the organizations that we mostly fund to create data have long-standing reputations in taking data that comes out of government and then putting that into searchable data formats and not, not playing with the data at all, not interpreting the data at all. so whether that's open secrets.org or follow the money.org or fed spending.org which is run by an organization called omb watch, this is just the facts, it's just the data. there's no interpretation, you know, on this data. and even on the databases that we create ourselves. so we have a database that we've created. it's a small one, but no one's ever done it before called party time, and this has to do with the fund raising events that members of congress hold to raise money for their campaigns. we actually take the invitations themselves that we receive from all kinds of sources all around the city, and we have an
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interface created so that we can enter the data ourselves into it, and then we put the original invitation also up online. so if anyone ever doubts the database information, they can actually go back and look at the original, at the original invitation. and the value of this is, you know, invitations for fund raising kinds of events are sponsored by certain lobbyists, so in this database you can search by which lobbyists have sponsored more of these fundraisers, and do they represent interests on the committees which members sit? you get a richness when you create some of these databases as well as the data themselves. >> host: what are people interested in from the traffic that you see going to the site? >> guest: well, at the moment -- do you mean in terms of political party time? >> host: just information they're looking for. >> guest: well, today it's health care, of course. so yesterday tens of thousands of people went to open
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congress.org to begin to understand the facts of the health care debate themselves. we know there's a lot of disinformation, and it's hard for anybody to tell what's true. so open congress has the bill that is, you know, the most obvious vehicle at the moment -- >> host: hr-3200? >> guest: if people are looking for information on this bill and they type in hr-3200 the first thing that pops up is a link to open congress.org. they can go to that bill, they can see all thousand pages, they can comment on this bill. so it gives an opportunity for people to actually dig in and see whether they can find, you know, some of these, the kinds of allegations that have been made about what's in this bill and what's not in this bill. >> host: could they search out the word death panel? that's one of the issues they doesed. >> guest: they absolutely can look for the death panel, and i don't believe they'll find it. but the opportunities for citizens to get the facts themselves, this is what the new
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technology offers. this is the connected age. we don't any longer need expert filters because each of us in our own way can gather the information to become our own lobbyist. and not only that, the new technology, other technologies that we use like twitter, you know, the messaging service, members of congress are on twitter, tens of millions of americans are on twitter, so you can go to open congress, get the facts, have some questions, go to find your twitter account for members of congress, hundreds of them are on twitter, and ask them a direct question, and i bet they respond because it's that kind of personal medium. so the technology enables us to not only get information into the hands of citizens without filters, without, you know, spin or analysis, but it also enables citizens to ask questions directly and be in direct one-on-one conversation with their lawmakers or their elected officials. >> host: elleen miller, you mentioned if you typed in
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hr-3200, this is the first one that pops up on google, do you have to pay for that? >> guest: no, not at all. >> host: why is it this the first one then? >> guest: because of the use. the algorithms genre have to do where traffic is flowing and then you rise in rank according to terms of the search engine. >> host: what if somebody wanted to search health lobbyists and members of congress and compare that and see who was supporting hr-3200. >> >> guest: i don't know what they'd find. but they could end up on a site like open secrets.org, and that site they could then type in the words health care lobbyists and find the information on all health care lobbyists, or they could end up on a site we have funded called little sis.org which is described as an involuntary facebook for the powerful. and this is a wiki site in which
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people are right now focusing on revolving door lobbyists in the health care industry. so people are doing their own research, they're adding information to this wiki on people who used to work for members of congress and who are now currently health care lobbyists. so this is another side of what technology allows you to do which is to pull this wisdom of the crowd and to, you know, to enlarge your staff and your information sources. i don't know who's contributing, you know, on this web site, but let's assume for the moment that it's other members of congress or other staff and they're saying, well, so and so used to work for such and such office and providing that kind of information. so there, you know, there are lots of sources of information, and what the search engines do is direct you in different directions. >> host: how much traffic have you seen since the start? >> guest: traffic has surged. i mean, every time there's a popular bill, traffic surges dramatically on open
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congress.org. and the traffic also surged dramatically with people creating their own accounts so that they can receive alerts about particular pieces of legislation they might be interested in following, they can find other people who are interested in issues. so last year's biggest bill was actually about unemployment insurance. people were looking for information about unemployment insurance, ended up on open congress, left their comments about what they thought about the bill. you know, the other interesting thing ant the technology that's really counterspewtive, it's all quite civil. seems like a heck of a lot more several than what's going on in the town hall meetings right now, but there's a certain level of collaboration and interest in sharing of knowledge and information that the technology sort of, you know, enables people to have civil dialogue. >> host: so you can have boards of what people are reading or finding out information about? >> guest: absolutely. they're actually not boards, just a very simple comment
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system on open congress that allows people to comment about what they think about particular sections of the bill. sunlight created a site, again using new technology, we did this last year. someone asked us to create a bill about what greater government transparency would look like, so our lobbyists developed a piece of legislation that had some is new ideas in it but also gathered up some of the very good ideas that had been pending in congress for a long time. she put it on my desk and said, well, why don't you look through this. i said, goodness, i don't know anything about this area or that area. i said, let's put it online and ask people if they will review this for us. and so they did. we put it up section by section, we allowed people to comment on it, and it was an unbelievably interesting experience. we learned a lot, and we engaged people that we never knew before. in the process of developing legislation. and we think that's a very promising venue. i mean, i'm not suggesting that
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all legislation needs to be developed this way, but the notion of having legislation online for a detailed look by citizens who are interested is, you know, is something that's really an idea whose time has come and the technology enables it. we do, sunlight does have an add slow advocacy side of what we do as well because while we are in the business at the moment of creating databases out of government information and then providing tools to access that, it's not really the nonprooft's responsibility to do that. this is government's responsibility. and so we have an advocacy program to try to convince government whether it's the executive branch or congress to put more information online themselves. and so one of our platforms is actually something we call read the bill.org. we're asking congress to put all legislation online for public consideration for 72 hours before it's considered.
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and we think that this will not only enable members of congress to read the legislation, but for citizens to weigh in and tell members of congress what they actually think about it. >> host: this is "the communicators" program on c-span, our guest is ellen miller who is the executive directer and co-founder of the sunlight foundation. what is the business model of the sunlight foundation? >> guest: well, sunlight was founded based on several large investors in it. the co-founder is a man, a washington businessman and lawyer named michael klein, and he approached me in the founding of sunlight. and together, well, his approach was really what do we do to put the tools and information in the hands of journalists and citizens so they can understand more what's happening in congress in particular? we started with the focus exclusively on congress. and we talked with many journalists and practitioners and then some long-time colleagues of mine from the
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personal democracy forum in new york. they both said to us, look, there's an intersection that is happening between technology and political information, and we need to understand that and grab hold of it. and so we created sunlight, and michael klein was the first investor. to try to bring the political information and the technology together. and we've been very experimental since then. our largest funder is o mid car network, and they have given us $8 million and invested heavily in us. we receive other money as well, we have a contract with the pew charitable trust to build something called subsidy.org. a huge database of all government subsidies. information about subsidies that we're all very interested in because it's a huge, you know, spending item. you know, assumes a huge amount of our budget. no one's ever tried to put this
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information together in one single place, and so subsidy j son.com exists. we're building it out sector by sector. the first sector is on the bank bailout money -- >> host: and is it online? >> guest: it is online right now. you can actually search down to your local bank and find out whether your local bank has received money. so this is a very exiesing web site. the next sector that will go up is about transportation, so all kinds of subsidies about transportation. so pew is another very large funder of ours. the knight foundation has just given us a grant to build out tools and wing psychiatries for journalists to use, the open society institute has provided money for training of journalists, and we trained more than a thousand journalists on all these web sites last year. >> host: this president wanted to use technology and trapt parent si, how's he doing on that? >> guest: i think it's a bit of a mixed bag.
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there's some terrific things that have been done, and there's some things that are coming not as quickly as we'd like. so the directive on day one or day two of his administration was a hugely important step because it planted a flag saying we want to be transparent, we want to use technology to create transparency and collaboration and citizen engagement. so that is a standard to which we can hold all of the administration's efforts to. i think another huge step forward was the creation of data.gov which is a single web site which will unfold, of course, over several years which will provide a catalog and says to all government data. it will have it all in one place. you'll be able to search it by the topic and the interest that you're interested in. two major steps forward. i would say transparency in terms of the white house operations, a detailed daily schedule of what the president and senior staff do, we haven't seen that, and that, i think,
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would tell us a lot about what's going on, but the administration is using some of the new technology whether it's youtube which is not so new or some of the interactive ways to dialogue with the president in press conferences, they're experiment anything that way. some of those experiments work better than others. but it's certainly in terms of the administration's use of technology, we're seeing a lot of that. but we need to see it in more, you know, sort of genuine ways. i think there's the white house's use of technology, and then there's the message they send to the administration. there is no question that at the top levels of all of the agencies and departments they understand that technology is key in building trust in their work, and they understand that they want to do that. but then there is a sort of cultural resistance beneath the top layer which is making it a long, a slow road in terms of fruition. >> host: cultural resistance
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primarily by whom? >> guest: well, i think it's the middle-level bureaucrats. we certainly see it on capitol hill as well who are not used to giving out this data. they think of it as their data and their information and not, you know, for public consumption. i mean, i, you know, that is the way it is. it's hard to understand quite why. i mean, was it thomas jefferson who said information is power? and certainly members on capitol hill understand that information is power, so they want to keep it close. but what's happening is that those barriers are falling down because citizens expect to be able to find what they want to find online 24/7. if i want to make a plane reservation at 2:00 in the morning or buy a book at 11 p.m., you know, or order, you know, you know, some other item at 6 a.m., i can do that. and the same kind of thing as what people want in terms of their political information. there was a fairly recent pew
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study that demonstrated that huge numbers of people, you know, double in the last election cycle over the previous cycle went online to get political information in the last election cycle. and i think that was something like 50 million people. and we estimate that based on those numbers and others that about 25 million didn't just go to get information, they stayed to create information. you know, maybe they wrote a blog post or maybe they left a comment or maybe they sent an electronic message to their member of congress or, you know, to an agency or department. 25 million people do this kind of thing, this is a huge mass of interested people. and so our theory is you put this information into their hands, invite them to collaborate, and they will. >> host: speaking of congress, though, how is congress doing on putting information online? >> guest: well, it's maybe a little bit more challenging than the executive, but we have,
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actually have had two prompts. well, they're both really on going, one is called the open house front and the other is the open senate project. a collaborative effort to identify easy ways for the house and senate to use technology to come into the 21st century, to put more information online. make it available. we've had great reaccepttivity in the house both by the speaker, nancy pelosi, and by john boehner, the point leader -- minority leader, and by senator reid, the majority leader in the senate as well. to this project we delivered the house results some time ago, and we've been working through the various rules committee to get some of these ideas enacted. they're easy things. the senate is more difficult. for example, one of our advocacy projects is to push forward a piece of legislation called
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s-482 which would require the senate to file their reports electronically. there is no reason for the senate not to file their campaign finance reports electronically. they keep them on the computers, they print them out, then they hand them to the federal election commission that spends a quarter of a million dollars every year rekeying them, making mistakes and slowing down the process. now, i wasn't born yesterday, i know that that slowing down of the process is what they want, and so we put a lot of pressure, and we think congress actually will, i mean the senate actually will pass this s-482, and we've mounted a major campaign to try to get them to do it. they've never done it before, they're reluctant. what does it mean when you invite the public in, you know, in that kind of direct way? and i think they have to get used to it, but there are lots of members who do understand the change of technology and how it enhances their ability to communicate with constituents. >> host: and i was going to follow up, does that, do you see
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more of these members making these moves to talk about their own actions, their own contributions, their own associations via technology on an individual basis? >> yes, absolutely. more and more members are going on to twitter which is the most direct way to communicate with people, more of them are getting more sophisticated in interactivity on their senate and house web sites. so there is a growing appreciation for this. and, you know, it's not all just the younger members who are coming in. we see some of the, you know, the older members or members of long standing is maybe the more polite way to put it who begin to understand that this will increase their constituents' trust in what they're doing. there are a number of members of congress who now post their official calendars online. and so you can see who they meet with. it's only seven or eight of them to date, but we think this is an idea that members see will increase trust. so i'm a member of congress, i
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have nothing to hide, you can see that i meet with lobbyists on this issue and lobbyists on that issue, people i agree with, people i don't agree with, and how much time i spend in committee meetings, etc. so, you know, disclosing calendar ises is another thing we see them doing. >> host: ellen miller, how has the technology already changed and what is the next generation of technology? >> guest: well, i don't think anybody can predict what's next, but i would have to say that at least once a day if not twice a day someone will send to me a new piece of technology that they'll say can we use this in some way? so there's a program called gap minder, and it's a motion chart of, it's a motion chart. so you can click, you know, once you create it and you can see, you know, a swell of, you know, information that you might, you know, put on this. so we use it actually to create a chart of real estate, finance,
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insurance, and real estate contributions to democrats and republicans over a 10 or 15-year period. and literally with the click of a button in less than 15 seconds you understand the growth of these campaign contributions which may or may not have led or had an impact on members of congress and the current financial scandal. and so it's a way of illustrating it. or, you know, we, we looked at earth marks. it's a project we have called earth marks. we used google earth. new technology in the last couple of years, and we put earmarks on top of google earth, and we were told in at least one if not more incidences that members of congress said what do you mean you can fly earmarks over my district? and indeed, you could.
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it's a visualization that enables people to understand, smile a little bit, but fundamentally understand really what's going on. there are examples of this day after day after day of, you know, the creative talent online in terms of the technologies is, it appears to be limitless. and so we see these all the time, and we think, you know, how can we use this? >> host: final question. >> host: how would you gauge success for the sunlight foundation? >> guest: two ways. first and foremost, we want to see government adaptation of the notion that it is their responsibility to provide government information for its citizens. so in a sense we think of data.gov as already a success. usa spending.gov was built on a web site that we funded. it was literally exactly the same code. that's a success. so the shifting of responsibility to government to
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provide this information is absolutely a measure of success. and then secondly, citizen use of this information. so we want to see more and more citizens coming to the open congresses or the map light.orgs or other sights that we both fund and create. to that end, we've done a number of projects like aps for america asking citizens to create applications on top of data to demonstrate their usefulness. >> host: ellen miller has been our guest, sunlight foundation.com is the gateway site for all of the different sites she has mentioned. she was also the founder of the center for responsive politics and public campaign. thank you very much. >> guest: thank you.